'Elmo' introduces man behind Muppet

Being Elmo tells the story of puppeteer Kevin Clash. (Larry Busacca/AFP)

Being Elmo tells the story of puppeteer Kevin Clash. (Larry Busacca/AFP)

Kevin Williamson, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:29 PM ET

"Am I a man or a Muppet?" sang an angst-ridden Walter opposite his human alter-ego in last year's The Muppets.

There's no such existential crisis in Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey, a feel-good documentary about a cheerful guy who's not made out of felt (but probably would be just as cheerful if he was). There is no tortured artist's soul to explore. And even cynics expecting a marketing ploy timed to coincide with the Muppets' return to the pop culture fray may be disarmed by the vast, sunshine-on-your-face charm of Constance Marks' film and its subject, Kevin Clash.

If you don't recognize the name, you surely will his creation: the red-furred Sesame Street sensation that spawned millions of Tickle Me Elmo dolls. Even decades after that phenomenon, Elmo endures as one of the most popular, endearing characters to emerge from the series and Jim Henson's factory of cloth and bulbous eyes. Watch, for example, the sequence in which terminally-ill children meet and embrace their favourite monster.

Manipulative? In lesser hands, it might have been. But Being Elmo never feels crass or insincere as it chronicles Clash's childhood in Baltimore. Back then he was the neighbourhood kid who was more fascinated with puppets than playgrounds. (Being green isn't easy, but neither is that.) Still, he persevered, nurtured -- not discouraged -- by a family who supported him as he pursued his passion. As he told me at the Sundance film festival, other parents saw it as "a hobby, not a career."

So Clash hunkered down, dream in mind, sewing and stitching and refusing to buckle to conventional wisdom, all the while never losing his sense of play and decency. Actually, that does sound like a muppet, doesn't it?

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey director Constance Marks will introduce the film and participate in a Q & A on Friday, March 16, at the 6:30 p.m. show at the Bloor Cinema, 506 Bloor St.

This film is rated G.


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